Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer


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December 16, 2003

The 2003 Christmas selling season is just about over.  We will be open this next Saturday on what we call "Procrastinator's Day" and then will put up and lock the chain across the bridge.  Marge and I are tired and will be closed from that point on!  

On Procrastinator's day, we will have nothing available to the customers but the Christmas trees, the  tree house, the grass maze and the trails.  We will not have the horse ride, hay ride or the free hot dogs!  If you want your tree cleaned, you may even be asked to help.   

We keep being asked by our customers on how sales are going with this weak economy.  Well, the weather was absolutely perfect every selling weekend, the customers did come in droves and the kids were kids and appear to love the farm as much as I do.   The only hint of a weak economy was seen at the cash register.    

Our customers, as expected ,are also being affected by this economy and did watch what they bought.  In many cases it was the cheaper tree with a hole in the back or just a candy bar for all in the family instead of a wall hanging for Grandma.   Marge and I have been there and have done that during the downturns of the 1980's and the 1970's!   

We were prepared for this since we did sell Christmas trees at a retail lot in Houston during the very depressing 1980's.  We know what it was like to wait at the lot for customers to show and then price shop.  Well, we decided the best solution for this was to prepare and give every customer the best deal possible even if it meant selling a smaller less perfect tree at a more affordable price.  Well, I do believe we achieved this objective this year.  

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Marge, Denny and Sarah. 

November 1, 2003

The October Outing is history.  Besides the usual events, we did experiment with a story telling time the first weekend and the unexpected visit of "leaf man".  Both were a hit.  I am sure you are wondering what is "leaf man", well I suggest you explore this link and use your imagination.  Hint: There is a reported siting of a very strange animal with big feet in these woods back in 1983 and 1984.

The sho tree and bat tree were also rated by the kids as "you must be kidding!"  I did find out from the kids that their parents were more surprised than they were.  Well, we will have the bat tree and the sho tree open during the choose and cut time.  With leaf man, I suspect he will appear only on the moonlight adventure night.  

  We are now in the process of getting the farm ready for choose and cut.  This additional effort centers around making sure all lights light, all shaker shake and the balers will bale.  With the crowds we get during this period, we have found anything skipped will cause us problems.   This process also includes updating the web site and especially the group calendar page.  It seems like everyone wants the same day!  

The trees look great but I must again warn you of our shortage of Leyland cypress.  We do have a disease which did attack a section of these trees.  No cure is known.  At this time, we are just waiting and hoping it does not spread to the other Leyland cypress trees.  Next spring will tell us how severe is this problem.  

What is the disease?  Something is killing a section of trees planted in deep sand.  It starts at the bottom and works up the tree.  This has been reported at nearly all farms in the South who are growing Leyland cypress.  It appears to be more severe where you have high humidity, no morning sun and deep sand.  It may be a soil borne disease, lack of a trace mineral or just some tree killing fungus. Since we have grown Leyland's at this site for several generations with out problems, we are concerned.

Bottom line, this disease has already reduced the number and size of of Leyland cypress suitable for sale and could even eventually force us to stop growing this tree entirely.  Our alternative would be more Virginia pine or maybe selling potted leylands.  With the October Outing, we do have Leyland cypress left but they tend to be eight foot or less.  I do have two ten foot Leylands but one is entirely brown (dead) and one is brown half way up.  We will have no Leylands available for sale on the internet tree purchase section.   

October 8,2003

We are currently getting the farm ready for the October Outing.   This normally involves mowing around the trees, selecting the trees to be available for sale , coloring the trees and just cleaning up the place.  Well, this year we are a little behind but will still be ready for the October Outing opening day of Saturday, October 15.  

Why are we behind?  This year, we had to contend with a change in the liability insurance on the farm.  Our carrier who also covers the vast majority of the Christmas tree operations in the United States included the clause of not covering "mechanical entertainment devices and equipment".  Some farms have train rides, merry-go-rounds, mechanical pumpkin launchers, robots etc.  Through our industry network, accidents do not appear to be a problem. It appears to be the current insurance approach of making money by eliminating all perceived potential risks.  To put this another way, it would be like the insurance company selling you liability insurance on your car but not letting you take it out of the driveway!   

Well, the only significant mechanical entertainment devices we have are the adventure crossing and water pump.   Well, I do not consider hand pumping water as being entertainment so it is safe.  However, the adventure crossing does fall under this category. I am sure a few of our customers would claim it was not entertainment but pure fear! 

With no insurance claims on the farm in the seventeen years of operation, we did appeal the Adventure Crossing but in vain!   In summary, no liability insurance coverage on the adventure crossing means no adventure crossing this year!  

We will be attempting to find a more reasonable insurance carrier for the future.  However, we did not have the luxury of time since this change was brought to our attention on October 1 when the existing policy renews.  I guess you can caulk this up to insurance companies wanting premiums and absolutely no risks! (You may want to read my last update on the insurance company inspecting and raising the replacement value of the barn.  They sure have a variety of ways to minimize risks and maximize premiums!)  

This clause has put a few of my intentions of adding the sledding hill this year on temporary hold and making changes to the adventure crossing to keep the kids from falling into the water.  Maybe, next year!  

Insurance companies may not care if the children who visit our farm have fun but I do.  I am in the process of adding a few new attractions.   One is the very rare shoo tree. The shoo-fly was reportedly named for this tree.  In addition, I found a tree with upside down hanging bats.  It even has one of the very rare blue bats.  If the bats do not disappear, this will also be identified.

Now for the last and probably most important items for who ever selects the Christmas tree.  We have a very limited number of Leyland cypress available.  A disease is attacking these trees and did do in several of those we were expecting to have available this year.  I wish I could say we have a solution to this disease, but do not!  All we know is that it gets into the trees via the root system and does it damage from there.  (If you do not mind a Leyland with the bottom half of the branch on the tree brown and the upper half beautifully green, we will have a few of those.)  We do not know if it is environmental or genetics.  

I am sure some will mention that one of our great Texas Universities or the Texas Department of Agriculture will come up with a solution.  Well, assistance like this fell by the road side many legislative session ago.  Christmas tree growers along with many other specialty crops are on their own in Texas!  If only we could get the trees to "moo" and "poop", we might be able to get some research funding.

We are trying to minimize this problem by scattering all of our Leyland cypress planting.  This fungus does appear to attack second generation of trees planted and predominantly when planted in sand.  We will see if this works.  We also will not be selling any Leyland cypress by the internet.  We suspect that most if not all of the six foot and greater Leylands will be selected by the first weekend of our October Outing.

 I am trying to get Marge to give up her already selected Leyland cypress Christmas tree.  Well, her comment is that if I plant the trees, mow around the trees, shear the trees, worry about the trees and if only one lives, I am getting that tree!  I guess, this is one advantage of being a Christmas tree farmer.  

April 23, 2003

The 2002 selling season is history.  The IRS and the State of Texas are paid off.  A new Christmas tree field has been bulldozed.  Christmas tree seedlings have been planted.   The cycle continues. 

I get to enjoy Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm for a month or so until it will be time to shear.  As many of you know, shearing is where I strap on this forty pound back breaking machine with a ten foot blade , walk around every Christmas tree on the farm which is roughly 70 miles, cut any protruding branches and leave every tree in the shape of a cone.  I do this during May and August whether it is 40 degrees (preferred) or 100 degrees (pure misery).  This is also what I consider my health club exercise.

A new Guest in the Haunted House 

The big happening at the farm is that we have a family of buzzards in the attic of the old house.   If you are from someplace other than Texas, you may also know them as black vultures.  Besides cleaning up on any dead rotting animals, they will also, if opportunity presents, eat a live rat, squirrel or snake.  They are the reason we do not see many snakes in the Christmas tree field.  

These buzzards are huge and can be seen soaring over the farm on sunny days.  Their wing span is around six feet.  

We first became aware of these buzzards checking out the old house last fall.  Marge and I were constructing the  nearby Spooky Hollow Trail.  Suddenly, the quietness of the woods was shattered with this high pitch , skin curdling screech from the old house.  Our first thoughts were that this is a "man-eating" bob cat .  Or worse, it could be that "big foot".  (There is a reported siting of a very strange animal with big feet in these woods back in 1983 and 1984.)  

Well, we slowly made our way up the trail to the old house to see what our future would hold for us.  What we saw both surprised us and also relieved our fears.  Two buzzards were slipping and sliding on the tin roof.  Their claws against the metal made the sound.  It was the same high pitch sound you can get with caulk on a caulk board.  

They did take off a piece of metal roof and create their own second floor entrance to the attic.  Based on their coming's and going's, it was obvious that they built a nest and are raising a chick .  Well, the chick is now flying but does come back to its next every night.  

These black vultures are beautiful in flight or even when resting on a high tree branch.  I wish I could say the same for their offspring when a chick.  We found a buzzard chick in a turned over hunting blind a few years ago.  All I will say, the chick was big, noisy and smelly if you get too close.  I have been told that the smell is from the rotted food given to them by their parents and regurgitates if threatened.  

Jude, our petting dog,  loves birds and will chase a soaring vulture across the Christmas tree fields.  Even Jude our petting dog, refused to go any where near that chick.  

I am planning on letting them occupy the haunted house as long as they want to.  After all, the witches and ghosts do not appear to be complaining.  We have noticed fewer visits by the local children.  Maybe they now consider it a real haunted house with real live buzzards to pick the bones of the unwary.  

I suspect that it will not be long before the chick vacates the attic.  We have seen the two bigger vultures soaring along with the young vulture.  

The insurance crisis in Texas is affecting Mill Hollow  

Do you know which is our greatest expense item at the farm?  Is it labor, taxes, hot dogs, christmas tree seedlings or insurance?

Guess what, it is insurance.  This is surprising to me especially if you consider that  Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm since 1987 never had a property or liability claim on its insurance!  

Why am I bringing up insurance?  I do consider this a necessity for a business.  If we do not get the insurance we need, we do not open!  

This last year, it has also consumed an inordinate amount of time and created unbelievable frustration in working with our insurance companies.  

For example, we were given a one day notice that our fire insurance on our farm buildings would not be renewed in October last year.  

We were uninsured for two weeks.  No insurance company was willing to commit to replacement coverage .  We did have a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico during that time.  (I have been told that property insurance will not be sold when a potential hurricane is at your door step.)  If Marge or I told you in no uncertain terms during our October Outing last year that smoking was not permitted, now you know why!

Insurance at our farm will dictate what we will let our customers do. As I suspect all of our customers know, insurance in Texas is becoming something unreal.  Since we must have it, we will be doing our best to make sure it does not affect your families enjoyment at the farm. Please do understand if we must start placing restrictions on your activities to satisfy a very fussy insurance industry.  

If you have a problems with the insurance industry running our operation, do visit with your state representatives and senators and also the state insurance commissioner.   

I do find this very frustrating since insurance is based on statistics.  I am an engineer and have taken both undergraduate and graduate level course in statistics.  I do understand what they are doing.  We also belong to two trade groups and discuss accidents and other claims.  We have a good idea on what they are having to pay out.   Interesting, insurance companies will plead excessive claims but do not present this information to the consumers in the detail to prove their point!  

I do remember a statistic professor who said "Statistics do not lie, However, statisticians do!" 

I am also seeing evidence of the insurance over-charging to the unwary.  For them, these revenues have no statistical cost and consequently are pure profit.  How do they get away with this?  Very few people will question their insurance coverage!

I can give you an example of a recent frustration with my "new" property insurance carrier at the farm.  Marge and I built the metal barn back ten years ago for $3,300.  My new insurance carrier claimed the replacement cost today was $42,000 and the premium should be based on this value.  In the fine print, they also made it very clear they will not give me the money if the building was destroyed but will replace the barn with a similar structure.  

The day I got this letter, I also got my Sam Houston Electric Cooperative magazine.  In the back, they had pages of advertisement of companies willing to build a barn like I had.  Well, the cost of labor and materials for my size and style barn was not $42,000 but $5000!  

I guess what really got me was that I paid $200 in my premium to my "new" insurance carrier for their inspector to come and look at the existing barn.  Yes, he did look at the barn because I had to give him directions over the telephone one afternoon.

Surprisingly, the "new" carrier did back down when presented with the contradicting evidence.  However, I am still waiting for them to send me their rational for a replacement building costing $42,000.  I do not expect to see anything from them!